Beauvais, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre


    Oppidum of the Belgic Bellovaci; Roman Caesaromagus, Beauvais in the middle ages was the seat of a powerful count-bishop and in the 12th century provided a military buffer zone between the Ile-de-France and Normandy. Beauvais was also a center of textile production and seat of a commune. After the conquest of Normandy in 1204 the area fell increasingly under royal power.


    Begun 1225


    There are three parts of the building including a wooden-roofed romanesque aisled nave (Notre-Dame-de-la-Basse-Oeuvre) dating around the year 1000, a gothic chevet, and a late gothic transept. In its present form the Gothic chevet has six straight bays flanked by double(Fig. 1) aisles terminated to the east by a seven segment hemicycle encircled by an ambulatory with shallow chapels, all of the same depth. The transept projects a full bay beyond the body of the choir with facades that were intended to be flanked by powerful towers.


    In elevation the cathedral has pyramidal section with lower outer aisles tall inner aisles and very tall central vessel rising to about 46.5 meters. The main vessel has three stories and very tall arcaded, glazed triforum and tall clerestory and the inner aisle and ambulatory have their own triforium and clerestory creating the illusion of a five story elevation like the cathedral of Bourges. This effect was more powerful in the original chevet which had only three very wide bays enhancing the optical availability of the spaces however the three straight bays were transformed into six bay with the addition of piers inserted in the main arcade after the partial collapse of the vaults.


    The cathedral was begun by Bishop of Miles of Nanteuil in 1225 after a fire damaged the previous chevet, which probably dated in the previous century. Work started at the center of the building (following the construction sequence at the cathedral of Amiens) focusing on the northeast transept aisle, north flank of the choir (up to the windowsill) and the equivalent unit on the south. Construction proceeded for seven years when work was interrupted by civil unrest which was precipitated by the expulsion of the Bishop Miles from the city and the loss his temporalities (his income) at the hand the young King Louis IX and his mother Blanche of Castile the regent of France. In 1239 work resumed under Bishop of Robert de Cressonsac, who was sympathetic to the King. The design of the hemicycle and radiating chapels reflects forms of the King's favorite monastery of Royaumont, located not far from Beauvais. Construction continued through the 1260's on the upper choir under William of Grez. Parisian forms influenced by Pierre de Montreuil. The clerestory was increased in height and in 1272 the canons occupied their stalls and mass was said for the first time. However twelve years later, in 1284, a partial collapse of the vaults took place leading to the radical rebuilding of the chevet which continued until the 1340's. The onset of the Hundred Years War prevented further work. Work of completion was begun in the 1490's by the greatest master mason of late gothic Martin Chambiges. The transept was complete by 1550 and soon afterwards work began on an ambitious lantern tower over the crossing that would match the height of the dome of the old Saint Peters in Rome. The tower collapsed on Ascension day in 1573 causing substantial damage to the body of the choir. Extensive work of repair continued until around 1600.


    Architecturally this is a hybrid building where the vision of the architects can be closely coordinated with social circumstance. The cathedral of Bishop Milon de Nanteuil with its five-aisled pyramical elevation sought to articulate architectural references to old Saint Peters in Rome and that of Cluny. The Bishop held that he reported only to the Pope and chose not to recognize the power and influence of the King of France. From 1239-1240 second phase reflected architectural prototypes of the power of the kings of France. The collapse of 1284 should not be taken as a reflection on the problems of generic gothic but should be understood in local terms, poorly coordinated building construction and structure with a vastly oversized bay coupled with inadequate buttressing and wind buffeting.

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